The Silk Road: Day 4 China’s Grand Canyon

We traveled by high speed train from Xining to Zhangye. It took 2 hours and unfortunately it was late evening so we couldn’t see anything from the windows.

It was quite a palaver getting into the station as the government has new tracking regulations which seem to apply only to foreigners. An official wrote down our passport number, visa number and telephone number. It was a fairly labour intensive task but we got through in time to make the trip

Exiting the station at the destination was another lengthy information gathering process which also included finding the latest stamp in our passport for them to check, before we made it exhausted and travel-weary to our hotel. At which point we were told that we needed to show our negative nucleic acid test results which none of us had because we had been told that we didn’t need them!!! It was a tense time not knowing if we had a bed for the night and we all had to pfaff around downloading a separate QR code and filling in details online and then Kevin & I also had to find our quarantine results certificate from back in April which fortunately we had pictures of on our phones. It was a HUGE relief to fall into bed that night.

In the morning we visited a 900 year old monastery.

Very few structures remain from this period because successive dynasties burnt the buildings to the ground as they didn’t want the people to remember the old ruler and the the Cultural Revolution finished off what was left.

In the case of this temple there is an enormous reclining Buddha inside with Chinese features so it escaped destruction.

The surrounding compound was beautiful though.

There was a man writing poems on the pavement outside.

Our next stop was supposed to be another monastery which had been been constructed Petra-like into the rock but apparently they had decided only yesterday that all foreigners needed to show negative test results before being allowed in. We think that they heard we were coming!!!

This is a model of what we SHOULD have seen.

But instead we drove out of the city (Zhangye) and what was quite incredible was that it was all urban building as you would expect, then we went through a tunnel and came out the other end to this…

It was almost as through we had gone through some sort of portal and emerged in another world!

Lunch was interesting. We all ordered short noodles but when the bowls arrived they were way too salty. We have noticed here that the dishes are loaded with MSG and they even have bowls of it around for you to add your own extra! MSG doesn’t have the bad press that it once did but even so we tend to steer clear of it and in fact most of us were unable to finish the noodles.

Fun fact: you can get MSG from bananas

At the entrance to the canyon was an enormous prayer flag tent but this one was in Mongolian style. You can see the difference in the shape. It looks like a hat.

In actual fact were were close to the border with Inner Mongolia. When I was a child Inner and Outer Mongolia seem like the farthest away and most inaccessible place in the world. I had no idea that one day I was actually be here.

Then on to the canyon. This was simply stunning. The whole area was a lake in prehistoric times and the colors were muted but like nothing we had ever seen before in a landscape. It was almost like being on an alien planet.

Our American colleagues assured us that it was just like Arizona.

We were high at 2387m which meant that even short climbs left us quite breathless.

One of the really annoying things about China is their need to pipe music into all scenic spots. We speculated that it’s because they don’t cope well with silence but we don’t know for sure. It’s very annoying though as the beauty and tranquility were a little spoilt.

I was delighted that there was a good path with a sturdy guardrail but even so I didn’t go too near the edge!

Some of our group did an extra hike which involved climbing this ladder up the rock face

So I opted out of that.

All in all the day was amazing. The terrain was so unlike anywhere we have been before.

Once again thanks to colleagues for their photos some of which were better than mine.

The Silk Road: Day 3 Qinghai Lake

The Qinghai Province in Central China is a meeting place for Mongolian, Tibetan, Muslim snd Han Chinese cultures. Driving through the vastness of the grassland plateau I could just imagine Genghis and his marauding Mongolian hordes cantering through the region and how terrifying their presence must have been to the nomadic tribes.

It was Genghis, however who unified the warring tribes and laid the foundations for the development of The Silk Road.

And it is Marco Polo who really captured my imagination on his voyages along The Silk Road. How intrepid those early explorers must have been to travel for years and years in such inhospitable terrain and unforgiving climate. What took us five hours on a fast road in a reasonably comfortable van would have taken those caravans months. They too didn’t know the language and had to eat strange foods not to mention navigate in unfamiliar territory.

Polo wasn’t too complimentary about the people of Xining in his diary. He called them ‘idolaters who are fat with small noses and black hair’ He also noted that they practiced polygamy.

Today the rain held off while we visited the enormous Quinghai Lake. The red building out in the water is a disused torpedo testing site.

The lake is salt water, and only one species of fish can survive here. They are called yellow fish. During Mao’s revolution in the 1960s when famine gripped the country the local people survived by eating these fish. Today their descendants come and feed the fish to say thank you for keeping the people alive and to give something back to the fish.

Modern Chinese people have a growing penchant for photography, in particular posing for pictures. It is a national craze and wherever we go girls (usually) are beautifully made up and we see them striking pose after pose. It is more than just a selfie affliction, it requires a willing (usually male) photographer but on occasion we have seen whole photo shoots with lights, silver screens and the works.

Here at the lake being a beauty spot the management clearly knew their clientele and had provided a range of props to assist the narcissistic populous.

It is really quite fascinating to watch. Never has a generation or country been so totally obsessed with recording themselves.

We decided that if you can’t beat them, join them. So we had s group picture by the scooby-doo mobile

The Silk Road: Day 2 The Grasslands

An early start this morning as we needed to drive for 5 hours through the grasslands of central China.

It was quite an amazing journey over two mountain ranges and across a vast empty plateau. I have to say that I am extremely impressed with Chinese engineering. The road was a four lane highway for the first two hours with long tunnels through the mountains, crash barriers and a central reservation (unlike the road trip in Nepal). I felt so safe. Even when we left the main road there were no steep precipices, hairpin bends or stomach lurching drops. No, this was an extremely pleasant ride through beautiful scenery and I did not have to shut my eyes or clutch the seat once!

We were high though. For much of the journey we were above the tree line and at one point we reached the dizzy height if 3817m, which is approx three times the height of Ben Nevis.

As you can imagine the air up here is pure but very thin. The temperature was only 20 degrees but it is easy to burn so we all had to be careful.

Along the route we saw this temple which is the former site of the Tibetan sky burials.

The corpse is left on a platform for the eagles to eat. Apparently if the birds eat you all in one go then you were a good person and will go to heaven. If they don’t then you are destined for one of the hells. Given the roads and the growth in tourism the site for sky burials has been moved as it needs to be in a more remote location.

The terrain is very rugged and reminded me of parts of the Lake District but on a much larger scale. The main farming is sheep and Yaks which grazed freely over the steep slopes.

We did get to see this white Yak close up. These are called ‘pretty girls’

In July the region hold horse fairs and we saw lots of these hardy looking animals as their owners showed them off.

Actually we are extremely lucky to be visiting now as the whole region has summer for only 30 days a year. The rest of the time it is cold and last year it even snowed in June!

In between the mountains was a vast plateau which stretched for miles and miles. It wasn’t windy for us but it is obviously a natural wind farm and we passed hundreds of turbines. I have never seen so many all in one place.

The Mongolian and Tibetan tribes who live here are semi nomadic as the government provided winter housing for them but they live in yurts for the rest of the year. We saw several pretty tent structures nestled in the hillsides

All over the landscape are dotted the colorful prayer tents

The flags have different prayer meanings.

White = peace

Yellow = good harvest

Green = good marriage/fertility

Red = long life

Blue = health

I think it is wonderful to stand near the top of the world amongst so much prayer.

The main crops grown at this altitude are wheat and Canola, from where we get the oil. The canola fields were in flower and provided a stunning photo stop.

Great for a group shot. The air was heady with the perfume from the flowers and the fields almost vibrated as the bees worked hard. We had to be careful when going amongst the flowers.

Lunch was a massive bowl of lamb noodles soup which the locals eat for both lunch and breakfast. For the evening meal they have lamb noodles without the soup!!! Not a lot of variety but it was tasty.

Then it was on to Chaka which in Tibetan mean Salt Lake. It is incredible that this country 2000km away has such an influence here. It would take 32 hours to get there by high speed train!

This salt lake was formed when all the present continents of the earth broke up from the giant Pangea continent approximately 200 million years ago.

It is an area of outstanding natural beauty with some amazing reflections.

The lake covers 40 square miles and it has been used to produce salt for over 3000 years and is still going.

During the 30 days of summer this is a popular spot for photography and girls pose in red dresses on the salty crust.

There are gigantic salt sculptures

And peaceful walkways

This was not a place that was on my bucket list because I didn’t know that it existed but I am so glad that we have visited as it is one of the unsung wonders of the world.

Thanks to the group for sharing their photos with me.

The Silk Road: Day 1 Kumbum Monastery

We are so very fortunate that we are COVID trapped in a country that we haven’t yet explored much, that has so much culture to see and which has the virus largely under control. This has meant that during the summer break we have been able to take advantage of a trip along The Silk Road.

Some Concordia teachers who are China-bound have got together to do a private tour and we jumped at the opportunity. I apologize in advance to all those of you reading this who are stuck somewhere and unable to travel. The picture above is the seven of us.

Our trip begins in Xining in the province of Qinghai in Central China and we boarded an early morning flight from Shanghai. The airport was surprisingly busy and the plane was full. We had to have a green health code and wear masks (although I’m not sure this woman fully understood the reason!!!)

I had read that flights would resume but without catering so I was delighted to be served a sandwich and a yoghurt.

Xining is approx 2200 meters above sea level which meant that oxygen levels were lower and I could really tell every time I climbed a slope or set of stairs. As our guide remarked it was ‘hard breathing’. The area also has its own local cuisine which is noodle based because they grow wheat here not rice. It is also very meat heavy as the high altitudes mean that they need the protein.

Here you can see a girl wearing local traditional costume

On landing we went straight by van to our first destination, Kumbum a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery.

The weather was 14 degrees and raining which was actually a relief after the extreme humidity of Shanghai.

The monastery has been there since 1577 and contains Lamas, which is the Tibetan word for monk. In essence is is a Buddhist cult and whilst it adheres to the main tenants of Buddhist faith there are many differences. For instance monks can marry, acquire wealth and even have chauffeurs!

This monastery is famous for its 8 stupas.

Inside was the most beautiful teaching hall where the novice monks learn from 6-8am

The hangings are beautiful colored cloth which wasn’t glitzy and gaudy. There wasn’t gold around every corner but instead prayer wheels and I felt a sense of spiritual peacefulness. It wasn’t so much a tourist attraction as a house of religious instruction. In fact, if the boys from aged 10 and upwards fall asleep during the teaching senior monks wake them up with a clip round the ear from behind!

The buildings and courtyards were painted bright colors and we saw laypeople praying what is a grueling devotion which involves standing, kneeling, prostrating on the ground then kneeling and standing back up again. They are supposed to do this 100,000 times during their lives.

It made me exhausted just watching them but I was SO impressed with their core strength. Apparently you have to finish this devotion off when you retire so some of these people were not spring chickens.

The most unusual part of the complex was the Butter Statues exhibition.

Yes these displays really are constructed from butter. It is Yak butter which they also use to make smokeless candles, but here they mix it with wheat flour and minerals to make a paste that they can then model with. I was impressed.

We were conspicuous as the only non-Chinese people in the place. In fact someone in our group was approached by a local who joyously said ‘are they letting you in again?’ We had to disappoint him and say that we had come from Shanghai. He thought the borders were open to tourists again…

It was a long day and as our guide said, it was winding and clouding so we all got a little damp but we thoroughly enjoyed it.

An upgrade.

When we set foot in our Phoenix Mansion apartment for the first time on 30th July 2019 I knew immediately that I didn’t much like it. I was tired after a long flight and I hoped that it would grow on me.

The block is about 25 years old and looks unmaintained in all that time. Our apartment is on the 3rd floor (2nd floor in Imperial measurement as they call the Ground floor 1st floor!) It was just not quite high enough to escape the mosquitos.

The inside is light, clean and the building commands a high rent in such a prime Shanghai suburb HOWEVER there were several things that I knew were issues . Shabby just doesn’t cover it and compared to both our apartment in Bangkok and with my colleagues in other complexes here I wasn’t happy. So as soon as I could I applied for a transfer to a newer, more modern place.

I should at this point state that some of our staff actually like it here particularly as they can have their dogs and the lady who represents the management is very nice and efficient so sorts out all issues promptly. And it’s very spacious for Shanghai, Chinese friends who visited commented on how large it was for two people.

We have thoroughly enjoyed our first year here and we made the best of things at Phoenix. The sense of community was great.

On the plus side it is a serviced apartment so a couple of ladies appeared each Monday morning to have a quick whip round with a mop and bucket. They also provide us with fresh towels each week and clean bed linen once a month. Very nice, thank you. In the weeks in between we washed the set of sheets that we had. I felt a month was too long to go between changes of bedding!

But here the list ends.

The downsides severely outweighed the positives…

The most important problem was that there was no disabled access. In fact the entrance to the block looks like this

Six steps.

Oliver and Steph plan to visit and there was no way we could lift Steph in her chair up and down all those every time we went out for the day!!! We would all put our backs out. And in this close up you can see the state of some of the treads.

Our new place is newer so is ramped and access isn’t a problem.

Next come the lift and public spaces. There are no doors to the building so the Entranceway is very dusty, smelly and when it rains becomes lethal with standing water. The lifts are minging, to quote a Lancashire phrase, and one is like a padded cell as it is used to transport any construction whenever an apartment is renovated. There is no separate service elevator. This results in a dusty smell not unlike a building site. In our building the padding is also ripped and the whole impression given is ‘uninviting’

Once you arrive at the third floor you step out of the lift into semi darkness. I think it is a deliberate attempt on the part of the management to save money on lighting but honestly we struggle most days to see the lock to put our key in the door!

There is a stairwell which I refuse to set foot in!! It’s the stink which puts me off. Right opposite us is the ‘rubbish’ house and you can imagine what that smells like …

Most days the fire doors on every level are propped open (as you can see here) so with our fire warden hats on we were singularly unimpressed with the basic safety! No one else seems to care and we didn’t even have smoke alarms never mind a Carbon monoxide one in the apartment (until we kicked up a fuss).

Inside the apartment there are also some issues. Let’s start with the mould on the bathroom window. It’s a big problem in Shanghai at this time of year but it can be managed with good ventilation. Kevin worked hard to keep the air circulating but even so this is what happened. Not great for respiratory health.

And in the grouting of the bath

Note also the plug. This didn’t work, rendering the bath unusable as a bath. We complained and a fix-it-up chappie appeared and changed it from a rapid loss of water to a slow but steady one… so not great as baths go.

Each apartment is privately owned and decorated/renovated by the owner so they are all done to a variety of standards. Here is the standard of the grouting in our bathroom.

Not a great finish there.

The windows overlook the refuse sorting area for both Towers and several locals come each day to sort through the rubbish. In typical Chinese fashion they shout to each other while doing it and the noise can be quite disturbing.

The windows are all single glazed and ill-fitting. During the winter temperatures drop and there is only one source of heat in the entire space. We called it the ‘monolith’.

It also doubles as the Air con in the summer. There is an additional A/C unit in the bedroom (but no heater) however, it feels as though that hasn’t been serviced in years as it barely pumps out any cold air at all. We sweat through each night in the summer humidity. Well, at my age, I do anyway.

Finally the kitchen. Built for occupants of hobbit proportions it gives us taller people back ache when we spend any length of time doing food prep.

Here you can see the standard height of the dishwasher as compared with the units. It doesn’t seem like a big deal but after a while you really notice it. And a double sink but no draining board!

So we were DELIGHTED when a place became available in Green Court Serviced Apartments. A smaller unit but more modern.

Here is the compound

Dotted around are these delightful reading statues (which are right up my boulevard)

There is even a water feature and outdoor seating area.

We are in Block D and just look at how wonderful the lobby is

We get a smaller table but that’s fine. Its modern.

And the kitchen and bathroom are a joy to behold.

We have a wrap around balcony

With a nice view of the Catholic Church

But my favorite part is this enclosed balcony space. We call it the ‘Day Room’. The rug needs a clean and we will purchase some more furniture but it will make a very nice relaxing place to chill out. Possibly it will be even TOO hot in the sunshine.

But what spectacular views

Moving went very smoothly. You don’t realize how much stuff you have until you need to pack it up!!!

And we hired some local help…

Fortunately it is only across the road so he didn’t have to pedal far. Don’t worry, they had a van as well.

We had been running our food down to make the move easier but I was so tired/hungry/happy that I ate an entire tub of ice cream… oops!

It turns out that you CAN teach an old dog new tricks!

As a teenager my career goal was to be a teacher, actually a High School RE teacher but whatever, teaching was something that I thought I might enjoy. During my third year at university I came to the realisation that my hearing was going to be a problem, Back then I didn’t have my trusty hearing aids and I struggled with hearing in general. I knew that it wasn’t fair on a shy child asking a question if I couldnt hear them properly. So I gave up on that idea and turned to librarianship instead, which as anyone who works in the profession knows, isn’t as quiet as everyone thinks!!!

In actual fact librarianship did satisfy my ‘educator’ needs as I have spent much of my career teaching library skills to various levels from Toddler through to Masters students. I am even quite happy standing infront of groups of adults delivering papers at conferences or running training sessions but one thing that I have never done is be a classroom teacher.

So, when students began to return to Concordia this summer there were some tongue-in-cheek comments about me helping out with Grade 4, but in actual fact they were well covered and I just went in to deliver sessions on Primary and Secondary Sources. (I should point out here that all school libraries are closed by government order. Staff can go in but no children. I have to go out to them).

Then to everyone’s surprise the government announced that Grades 1-3 could return at the beginning of June (in Imperial that means Years 2 – 4). Our school starts the year early (mid August) so finishes earlier than most on 10th June. In normal circumstance this would be wonderful as we could all start the holidays when the prices are still cheap. Starting the kids back then hardly seemed worth it for what would effectively be a week but there was considerable merit in allowing the children to come back to see their peers and experience some sort of closure of the school year. Parents too were VERY keen that we do this. I got the distinct feeling that there were many frazzled people out there.

In our Elementary Division we have 21 classes across four grade levels and a number of our teachers were stuck abroad behind the international travel ban. They are desperate to get back to Shanghai but are unable to do so. So a general draft went out and it was all hands on deck. Administrators, principals, spouses with teaching experience and yes even the school librarian was called in.

It was a MASSIVE amount of work to design arrival and dismissal systems, lunch and recess (break) schedules as well as ensuring that lines of children stand 1m apart or sit separated at desks. All for one week. The management worked flat out to arrange everything so that it was compliant with the strict government regulations. Here, although things are relaxing elsewhere the government holds schools to a higher standard so, for example while the wearing of masks is no longer compulsory on the streets, it is for us in school.

I was allocated a Grade 2 class and had 12 children. Some of the class were also stuck abroad and they continued with Home Based Learning, but some parents elected not to send their children in and one was recently returned but in quarantine. I would guess that across all the classes we had approximately 2/3 of the children back. For my friends in the UK Grade 2 translates to Year 3, so bottom of the juniors and for readers outside education, it was a class of 8 year olds.

I was more than happy to be flexible and to help in this situation but if I am honest I was a little trepidatious. I had more than one night of insufficient sleep! On the plus side I knew the children from their weekly visits to the library and they all knew me which really helped. On the downside I had never before had to keep the same group of small people occupied for a whole school day.

As it turned out I needn’t have worried, the teacher that I was subbing for was so supportive and helpful. Each day I had a carefully planned out schedule with suggested activities but I had the opportunity to change or amend it if I wanted and as my confidence grew I did in fact do a couple of different things. Every afternoon we would meet after school by zoom and go over the plan and collaborate on it. Each morning she would zoom into the classroom and greet the children which they (and she) appreciated. It was quite emotional for her seeing someone else in her room with her group of children and I wanted to support her as much as she did for me. We ended up with a whole class international zoom on the last day where everone was able to say good-bye. Some children are repatriating and other are leaving to go to other schools in Shanghai so it was an emotional time.

Unlike normal school, each day was heavily structured around handwashing and one of the other Grade 2 teachers had put together a series of 20 second video clips of songs to help the children with the timing, but mine ended up watching the screen more than washing their hands. Hey Ho!

On day one the first thing that happened was that the children were given a safety briefing by the Principal. He said that they could ask their teachers if they had any questions. Back in my room I got

  1. Can we still play football?
  2. Miss, I have new braces…

And so the week went on from there…

We made good-bye cards, thank you posters and the children had time to be creative. The whole class went off twice each day, once to their Mandarin lesson and once to either Art, Music or PE which gave me a breather and chance to set up anything I needed to or to disappear down to the library to catch up on a bit of that work which still needed my attention!!! My two library assistants were brilliant at running not only our library but also the Middle and High School space as well as books in quarantine. I dashed in to put together the bags of books requested by parents each day and met with designers as we also plan a summer library refurbishment…

Back in the classroom, I did have to do some teaching; geometry and bridge design – both of which I had to quickly bone up on the night before!!! Bridge building has never been a particular strength of mine. The children had a STEM activity to build a bridge of 50cm which could support the weight of a small wooden block, using only material which I provided (or rather quickly scratched around to find). They achieved this with varying success but all enjoyed the activity. I read The Twits to them throughout the week and I thoroughly enjoyed the quiet reading time (it was bliss!)

Geometry was actually great fun. After discussing the names of multi-sided shapes and learning that a million sided shape is called a Megagon (thanks to Kevin for unearthing that fact) we made various shapes using geoboards (which I did not know existed before this) and finished off with me demonstrating the strength of a cardboard cylinder by balancing books on it (thanks to Martin Holbery for that suggestion). You can take the librarian out of the library but…

No one cried until one lesson when two girls were in floods of tears AT THE SAME TIME, one had been scratched by a boy as they both grabbed for the coloured pens (although I couldn’t see any mark) and the other had argued with her friend over what to draw. It was at exactly that moment that the Principal walked in to check how I was doing! Would you believe it!!!! I felt dreadful about all the tears but he was fine and said that I had seemed to be coping with it. Not a single person cried after that either. At. All. What are the chances that he would walk in just at that moment!

I cannot lie, it was an exhausting week. I probably worried more than I needed to and slept badly as my brain was fizzing about whether I had everything ready for the next day. Being a sub I didnt have a bank of tried and tested activities that I could pull out of a hat at a moment’s notice if things went pear-shaped. I also wasn’t entirely sure where everything was in all the cupboards and didn’t really want to root around TOO much.

The kids were great though and at the end of he week one of the girls said to me, “If we get COVID-19 again next year and have to do home-based learning again and then come back to school at the end of the year again and our teacher is away will you be our sub please?” Bless. I had obviously made an impression.

The school year finished on Wednesday 10th June and I waved everyone off only to turn around and go to a planning meeting for our Summer Program. Most schools in Shanghai are offering some sort of Summer School or extended learning activities. We were asked to volunteer (technically we are on holiday) and we get paid extra so I decided to help out once again. Kevin and I cannot leave Shanghai without going through a 14 day quarantine on our return so we are basically stuck here. I might as well earn a little more and build up our ‘Travel-Again’ kitty.

We have a bank of outside vendors such as Mad Science in and there is a range of options open to the children such as Basketball, Coding or Around the World geography

I was asked to help with a Reading & Writing Program for Grades 1 and 2 (7 and 8 year olds) which was taught between the English and Mandarin teachers. There were 6 of us, three Mandarin and three English speakers. We each had a group of approx 12 and we decided on themes together. We each taught for half the morning and then swapped the children over so they got the same or similar things in both languages. Each day has a fun, creative activity and then one day focuses on reading and the next writing. I said that I was happy to help so long as someone tells me what they want me to do. I will just do it. This seems to have worked OK.

Our themes were great Chinese Inventions of Dumplings, Chopsticks, Paper and Kites. The children modelled dumplings and set up a shop with signs and menus etc. They painted using chopsicks and cotton wool balls, built chopstick towers, made and raced paper aeroplanes and constructed Paperbag puppets after reading The Paperbag Princess, decorated and flew kites.

Paper plane competition

The summer school was slightly more relaxed than regular school e.g. no uniforms, no reports back to parents, no marking of work but teaching 3 hours straight with no TA assistance is tiring. Particularly when it rains and everyone stays inside. I learned very quickly to DREAD wet weather.

I was delighted that mask wearing rules are relaxing too. The children don’t have to wear them when seated at their desks or when they’re outside which is a huge relief to those of us who are hearing impaired but doing our best to help in these circumstances.

Dumpling Shop

Other things that I have learned during my brief career at the chalkface (or smartscreenface)

  1. Teaching requires the skill of leading a line of children down a corridor whilst walking backwards!!!
  2. Children are incapable of walking one behind the other 1 m apart. Seriously it just doesn’t happen.
  3. Social distancing is nigh on impossible to enforce in a classroom.
  4. Just when you want them to settle down to listen to you someone ALWAYS wants the bathroom/a drink of water.
  5. Constantly speaking above a room full of chatter gives you a sore throat.
  6. When you ask a group of 7 year olds to write about why they prefer chopsticks to spoons, inevitably one boy will say that chopsticks are best because can be weapons!!
  7. I suck at remembering names. This is really inconvenient when you need to yell at someone who has not been listening the first 10 times that you said something. To be fair I already knew that I am rubbish at names but when they are wearing masks it is especialy hard. I think it is my advancing old age…
  8. Silent reading is BLISS!
  9. Silent reading doesn’t last for long enough.
  10. When you see a child get an answer right or understand something you have been explaining it is the best feeling in the world.

One of the most fun activities was kite painting then flying. These kite kits were only 50p each including paints and brushes.

I survived. I fulfilled a chidhood ambition of being a teacher. I’m shattered now and can confirm that techers TOTALLY DESERVE their long holidays. It has been good to get to know some of the children a bit better and I might even remember some of their names when they come in the library next year (when the government restrictions get lifted)

What a tumultous and challenging time it has been! And what a way to end my first year in a new school and a new country! But first, to catch up on some of that missed sleep…

Back to school: It’s normal, Jim, but not as we know it.

Wednesday 7th May 2020 was the date that our school was allowed by the government education authorities to resume on campus learning after leaving the premises for our 10 day Chinese New Year holidays on 23rd January. Like the rest of the world we have been in a Home Based Learning Program but ours is about to start its 14th week. This is considerably longer than other countries and the challenges for us are that:

  1. Our teaching staff and 1/4 of our students are spread around the world in multiple time zones.
  2. We had no warning so many teachers are without their resources.
  3. Teachers are exhausted having to learn new technologies on the hoof and instantly convert all their material into digital formats. People generally don’t realise, but I can testify from my personal experience, that to produce a 10 minute piece of video content can take anything up to 6 hours to prepare. This is no mean undertaking I assure you.
  4. Engagement with the provided online content has been patchy. Some children are self motivated and took to it all like ducks to water; some pick and choose what they want to do and others have either chosen not to engage or been unble to access the technology depending on where they are.
  5. Children and staff are all missing each other. Very much.
  6. In common with other countries around the world there is considerable pressure and desire to resume face to face instruction.

But returning to school is NOT a return to how it used to be. We are in a brave new world now with a ‘new normal’. China is one of the first countries to experience this so for those of you not here, this blog outlines how it all went from my perspective:

Our return to campus was eagerly anticipated and long awaited particularly as local Chinese schools were given priority by the government who instituted a staggered return province by province, city by city, area by area. Although we felt that we were ready we simply had to wait for our turn. During the waiting period Admin and Operations staff were extremely busy as all the International Schools in our area were required to pass a grueling three stage inspection.

The government made certain stipulations mandatory for schools and as far as I am aware these changed frequently! Our HR were brilliant at liaising with the relevant authorities and monitoring the ever changing situation. It was not easy from what I can gather. The stipulations included:

  1. A thorough deep clean of the whole campus.
  2. Installation of additional handwashing stations by the entrance.
  3. A controlled entry procedure at the gate including temperature testing
  4. Installation of a portacabin to be used as an isolation unit in the event of anyone becoming unwell during the school day
  5. Procedures in place for dealing with anyone who becomes unwell e.g. isolation/contact of parents/transfer to hospital in private transport
  6. Production of training material for all returning students and staff on revised procedures
  7. Social distancing in classrooms
  8. Student spaces to be disinfected before new pupils enter and a gap of 40 minutes between student groups (which effectively limits mobility between classrooms)
  9. Closure of spaces where people congregate e.g. libraries
  10. Controlled lunchtime procedures
  11. Masks to be worn by everyone all day
  12. No bicycles or scooters are allowed on campus
  13. No parents or visitors on campus
  14. Provision of hand sanitizer everywhere

There may well be more that I am not aware of but these are the basics.

Return was for grades 11 and 12 initially (Years 12 & 13 in UK speak or sixth form for those not in education). And only those who have passed the government health checks.

The following Wednesday Grade 9 and 10 resume, then after another week 7 and 8, finally on 25th May grades 4, 5 and 6 will come back. As our term ends on 10th June the younger ones will not be back this academic year. The government has taken the tough decision that they are too young to understand social distancing and they touch everything too often, particularly the 3-6 year olds!

As a number of our students and some of our teaching staff are still abroad the approach has to be one of blended learning for those year groups who can return. This means that the ‘teaching’ will still be provided by the specialists via online materials and those who are on site will do supervision.

One important point to note is that all the children have the OPTION of returning to school or staying at home and continuing with home based learning from there. As far as the older ones go there has been a good take up as many will be leaving soon but for those in the High School (the 15-16 year olds) numbers who want to return are changing especially now that they are realising what is involved. But really what would you do? For many the attraction of returning to school was the social element but that is no longer what it used to be.

Spaces are being used differently on campus e.g. the library which has had the shelves pushed back and tables installed. Every hour there has been a supervised lesson and the study hall with even greater spacing. It is going to be difficult to maintain the distances once the other students return.

In the dining facilities there are 1 m lines marked out for the queues. Previously there was a good selection of food but this has been reduced to a boxed meal and the choice is either the meat or the veg option and all the cutlery and serviettes are pre-bagged.

The timetable for the day has been re-worked to provide more opportunities for supervised handwashing and controlled access for smaller groups to the playground. Even the lifts have a plastic covering over all the buttons which is replaced each day.

Entry to the campus is very strictly controlled. Only people who have been cleared by the school heath office are permitted to enter and even then I had to provide 4 separate pieces of documentation prior to arrival.

  1. A health declaration form
  2. Proof of the government health tracker showing that I had a green status
  3. Proof that I had cleared quarantine
  4. A signed letter of commitment that I would abide by the new regulations on campus

Each day I now need to log into a School/government website and input my temperature and sign (electronically) to say that I am not displaying any symptoms. This has to be completed every day before 8am including the weekends!

Also if you have a cough caused by an allergy any other condition you have to prove that by showing a signed medical certificate.

Then we have our temperature checked and then we wash our hands. Throughout the school there are thermal imaging checkpoints too.

From the library point of view we are setting up a book drop box at the back gate where families, especially those not coming back at all, can return their books. These books then have to be quarantined and cleaned before we can discharge them from the student account and put them back on the shelves. I had done much research into what the appropriate time is for the virus to live on various surfaces incuding paper and the plastic jackets of books. Library associations around the world recommend 3-5 days of quarantine but the Shanghai CDC are enforcing a much tougher ruling of 7 days and during that time the books must be laid out flat so that the front of the book is exposed to light. They cannot just be stacked in piles or put on trolleys! Then they have to be cleaned with a disinfectant wipe. This is quite an undertaking for us as we have to track which books are where in the process AND find space to lay them all out.

You can see from this example that the authorities here are really taking a belt and braces approach and enforcing perhaps stricter than necessary rules in an attempt to control any further outbreaks of the virus. This is tough medicine but the proof will be in the pudding. With my knowledge of UK schools I cannot see them being able to put even half these measures in place!!! We are extremely fortunate to have domestic staff to clean every class room between sessions and to have a veritable army of guards to enforce entrance protocols. We have thousands of masks ready for everyone to be able to use a clean one each day and we have boxes and boxes of disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer and disposable gloves.

It did feel good through to be able to walk back into the work environment as it seemed very much like a step in the right direction. And not just the fact that I will be less sedentary! I personally have enjoyed working from home. I have prepared and recorded sufficient online content for every grade to last to the end of the academic year if necessary and I have done this in peace and quiet with no interruptions which I have greatly appreciated. I have put in some hours (see previous comment about the length of time each video takes to make) however I have LOVED the fact that I had zero commute and I could operate in an unstructured day taking breaks when I needed or nipping out for a coffee meeting from time to time. Working in comfortable clothes was also a blessing!

The downsides for me have been the continual and probably overuse of the laptop which has given me headaches, poor posture and RSI symptoms in my wrists and arms. I have found the technology curve to be a steep one to climb and most of it has had to be self-taught. Only mere months ago I was blissfully ignorant of Zoom, iMovie, Screencasting, Handbrake, Ensemble, SeeSaw or even some of the WeChat and PowerPoint functions!!! Now I switch between them all  rapidly and fluidly. The journey hasn’t always been smooth though and I MAY have said some bad words in the direction of my equipment when things were not going well… part of the problem is that China doesn’t permit all applications so we can’t use Google or You Tube which is a shame as there is a lot of good material currently being made available…

On campus I am based for now in the Middle and High school library with my team so I am now located next to the tech hub which is a very comfortable safety net so I can relax now on the tech front. Phew!

It has been marvellous to SEE colleagues, albeit in masks, and to have normal conversations. The biggest problem though has been the stipulation by the government that we cannot have the air con on yet. It is not yet the heat of the summer with its soaringly high humidity levels but we are beginning to get there with temperatures between 20-30 degrees centigrade. Already the library space is stifling in the afternoons and wearing the mask becomes sweaty and uncomfortable. The school has replaced all the filters in the A/C system as per government requirements so hopefully we should get some cooler air soon. In the meantime it isn’t pleasant.

Another eerie thing is seeing all the empty classrooms and offices, knowing that the staff will not be back for ages and in some cases due to retirement or new jobs – ever! But their desks and work spaces are just as they left them. Someone will have to go and and pack them up. I have had to go into a few to search for their overdue library books and it felt all wrong. The moral is, I guess that you should leave your desk as you would wish someone else to pack it! Always!!!

This has been a massive learning curve for everyone and it isn’t over yet. I am busy setting up a click and collect library service which hopefully will keep families supplied with new reading material over the next few weeks. Thanks Tesco for the inspiration.

My first year in China has certainly been an unusual one!

 

 

 

Some reflections from ‘Er indoors (with apologies to Arthur Daley)

I often used to wonder about Mrs Daley, the character in the 70s TV series who was often mentioned but never seen. I suspect she had agrophobia but now I wonder if she was an early exponent of social distancing! Anyway, we are all Mrs Daleys now as we experience self-isolation, lock downs and quarantines.

For our part we have returned to Shanghai and been subject to the Chinese quarantine procedures and I thought that I would reflect here on how they are different to what is happening in the west. If you follow my blogs you will remember in my last post that Kevin and I were processed through testing at the airport and dispatched to our apartment.

Much of what we are experiencing is the same all over the world, long hours indoors, frustration at not being able to go outside, interaction with other humans being via social media and lots of opportunities to binge watch tv. Like everyone else, I found jobs to do with baking and puzzles and even washed our nets!!!

Some things about our experience though have been very different. We are living in an authoritarian state which is fairly dictatorial in its approach to this crisis. The numbers may have been misinformed at the beginning but now the government is being ruthless in keeping the virus out. We had tested negative at the airport so we knew that we didn’t have the virus but still we had to comply with the strict regulations. We did know that all this would happen before we returned but living it was a experience which I will share.

On the first day of our quarantine we were visited by the ‘gang of 4’; a doctor in full PPE, an assistant in full PPE, an interpreter in full PPE and a policeman. They would not come inside nor were we permitted to step over the threshold. We were handed masks and the conversation was conducted on the doorstep. We signed multiple forms in Chinese, then we were given some hand sanitizer, a bottle of disinfectant, a supply of masks and a thermometer. All of these items were free and supplied by the government. That was very nice of them.  Thank you.

We were told to take our temperatures at 9am and 2pm every day and to submit them to a special WeChat group. WeChat is the social media app which is widely used in China and we were signed up. We were told to put our rubbish outside our door at 9am and it would be taken away. In addition we were given a yellow ‘hazardous waste’ plastic bag and told that if we developed any symptoms that we should put our rubbish out in that! Fortunately that was one item which we never needed.

If we had any deliveries then the guard at the gate would bring them up and leave them outside the door, knock and scarper. It felt quite surreal the first time that happened with our groceries and really drove home the reality of the isolation.

Every day we submitted our readings and in addition a doctor knocked on the door to take a further reading, I guess to triangulate against ours and to check that we werent falsifying data. Some days the doctor appeared twice. This was a considerable effort on the part of the local health centre and must have been extremely resource intensive as there were several units to be visited just that I knew about!

We were lucky that China is set up as a nation of online shopping and deliveries. There is a small American grocery store opposite our apartment, something like a large Spar or 7 Eleven. It has an adequate range and lots of imported items, although these began to show as out of stock once the government placed restrictions on all foreigners entering the country. I guess that the planes bringing imported good have been affected. Not to worry, we were able to get fresh fruit and veg, bread and milk and enough essentials to enable me to do lots of baking. Those of you who see my FaceBook posts will remember that I hadn’t quite got the hang of the online system and we ended up with 6 aubergines and I had to research new and exciting dishes. We literally ate aubergines for an entire week. I also have an extremely generous supply of potatoes and 8 lemons!!!

One day a small box appeared on our door. This was a monitoring system and alerted a controller every time the door was opened. They knew when the medical team was visiting, the 9am rubbish dump and the time of any deliveries. If we had opened the door at any other times we would have been inviolation of all those documents that we signed on day 1 and risked a 3 year term in Chinese prison!!! This was Big Brother in action and the first time we had ever been subjected to such stringent surveillance. I cannot imagine this sort of thing happening in the West.

Unlike those in the UK who can take a daily “Boris’ or get outside for some exercise even if just a perambulation around the garden, we were confined to a third floor apartment with just a small balcony. We got some exercise by doing circuits of the sofa and dining table but I can’t tell you how boring that quickly became! On sunny days we did enjoy moving our big chair outside and for a couple of hours at midday we could catch the sun.

Thankfully, we didn’t develop any symptoms and have remained virus-free. We were delighted on Day 14 to receive our all clear and we now have the government health app which shows ‘green’. Yippee! Again, China is set up to use QR code’s extensively and we have been told that if stopped and questioned at all this is our proof that we have a clean bill of health. This means that we can now go out to do our own shopping and on the day of our release we had a celebratory coffee at Starbucks round the corner. Wow, that felt so daring!

On that trip we had to take a slip of paper from the guard at our gate as we left. We then had our temperature checked as we entered the shopping mall, again as we entered Starbucks, again when we entered the supermarket and finally when we returned to our building!!! The resources which are going into monitoring the situation are substantial.

In our area things are returning to normal but cinemas and large scale events are not yet open. We did see people sitting outside the restaurants and lots of children getting their exercise. Everywhere are public announcements and warnings. The crisis is not over yet.

School is still closed. They have made several adjustments and done a very thorough deep clean as per new government regulations and they are waiting for an inspection. After that the Shanghai Municipal Authority will give a date for all the schools to re-open. Some of my colleagues in Huangzhou and Suzhou returned this week. The plan is a rolling return with older children coming back first. There will be much to do once we do get on campus and I am looking forwards to it.

In the meantime I am recording more stories, enough to last up to the end of term as some children will probably not be able to get back here and will likely need to be home schooled for the whole time. I am joining in some class zoom sessions and telling oral stories which is great fun. And nice to SEE the kids again.

We are very pleased about one thing, we have returned to a land of sufficient toilet rolls!

Life is returning to normal slowly, but there is still a long way for us all to go.

 

 

Here to There… and back again: a personal coronavirus journey (with apologies to JRR)

In my recent blogs I haven’t mentioned much about COVID-19, the reason behind our wanderings, so I thought that as the world grapples now with the pandemic, I should pen some personal reflections on our own journey which began back in late January and was kick started by the Corona Virus.

It was Monday January 20th when I first heard about a new virus which was causing trouble in Wuhan. My trusty team of library assistants were hearing the news and passed bits on to me. It seemed to be very localised at that stage. However, by Wednesday of that week we heard that Wuhan was in lockdown and Helen appeared at my desk with a mask saying that they were getting hard to obtain and I should wear it.

 

It was always going to be a weird start to the year as we had only been back at school for two and a half weeks before we broke up for the Chinese New Year holiday. It was one of those years when the feasts occurred very close together. On Thursday 23rd we dressed in red or our Chinese clothes. I was excited to wear my new robes and to celebrate this great festival for the first time actually in China.

 

This was the first point at which the virus caused a disruption to me personally and really registered on my radar. Our whole school assembly scheduled for mid-morning was cancelled. The Shanghai Municipal authority had banned all non-essential gatherings. This was a shame as I had been looking forwards to it but the dragons danced through the school corridors instead.

 

Given the short start to the term, some families had not returned from the Christmas holidays and some had departed early for Chinese New Year, so classes were depleted all that week but especially that day. Some wanted to be sure that they reached their familes for the festival so had left early before the travel bans came into force.

 

My team and I went to celebrate that day with a traditional Hot Pot and much discussion ensued about the fact that in Wuhan shelves in the supermarkets were emptying as people were panic buying. This was the first time I really realised that the virus was serious. I had one or two messages from friends asking if I was alright but it did all seem quite far away from Shanghai. It felt like a Wuhan problem really with the rest of the country taking precautions.

At this meal I heard my first panic story from the crisis. Apparently a Chinese student from Wuhan was experiencing a fever so she took paracetamol to lower her temperature and boarded a flight to France. She evaded the airport screening and then posted gleefully on Chinese social media that she had escaped. There was a pretty awful backlash against her for doing that and she went into hiding as the French authorities tried to track her down. Looking back, the social irresponsibiity started then. I sometimes wonder what became of her.

We were due to fly out of Shanghai on our holiday on Thursday 24th and were advised to wear the masks at all times, even on the plane, and to arrive at Pudong airport an hour early as there were strict health screening measures in place which would add time to our departure. Shanghai was closing down as people were asked to stay at home and we were worried that we would have difficulty in getting a taxi but that was unfounded. At this stage the authorities had closed cinemas, Chinese New Year events and all public gatherings.

We needn’t have bothered arriving so early as Pudong was empty. We breezed through the health screening as there were so few people around. In this picture Kevin has to remove his mask before going through the thermal imaging section, but you can see how deserted the airport is. Normally is is heaving. I wondered if most locals had heeded the government advice and were not travelling to relatives.

Our flight to Brunei was full though, mostly with Chinese, and everyone wore their masks for the whole flight. I don’t like masks much, not just because they are hot and uncomfortable but because I can’t hear people when I can’t see their lips move and I have so much clutter behind my ears that there isn’t much room for mask strings. Still needs must and I wore it. We did all take them off to eat the dinner though so I guess any viruses could have been communicated then…

Once at our friend Gillian’s house news started to come in almost immediately that the school was going to be closed for two weeks but that staff were expected back as per normal . Every day we heard bits and pieces from friends and colleagues about how their schools were dealing with this situation and how staff in other schools were not going straight back. I have to say that Concordia were great and have been extremely supportive during this crisis. They have communicated efficiently and repeatedly so I have always felt well informed by them. Communication like this is so very important during unfolding situations. Often they were contacting us to say that there was no fresh news, but that was ok. I knew that they were there if I needed to talk to someone. Interestingly the infectious diseases part of the school Emergency Plan assumed that everyone would be in Shanghai during an outbreak; they had not envisioned a situation where we would all be on holiday around the globe.

It was when we arrived in Bangkok on Tuesday 28th that more plans went awry. That very day Thai International schools banned anyone who had been in China since 22nd Jan from entering campus. That was us, so all hopes of visiting the newly refurbished library at Shrewsbury were dashed. I did meet up with colleagues who were willing to see me and I understood that some did not feel comfortable. Some families who had been in China recently were asked to self isolate for 14 days and there was some disgruntlement that these people were getting two weeks off work/School!

By Thursday 30th we knew that we were going to be away from school for two weeks. It felt a little surreal, like we would be working on vacation. I wanted to give our school community access to the databases login information and was struggling to access everything I needed from my phone. It was just too little. Fat finger syndrome reigned supreme and not all my messages made sense! Autocorrect made some interesting changes… So we bought a cheap laptop which did help (note the camera broke within a week which wasn’t much help) and although it had Thai script on the keyboard it was in pretty constant use for the next 2 months.

I was asked by the school to provide online stories each week so that the children would still have their library story in an effort to provide some semblence of normality in these unusual circumstances. And so began my initation into the world of media. It has been quite a journey. I was grateful to my friend Susan Grigsby, librarian at Wellington School in Bangkok, for bringing me a selection of picture books to read. I managed to record me reading about 9 stories on my phone with Kevin’s help. However, the files were large so I had to learn how to compress them, upload them to my drop box , install my drop box on my PC and move the files to the school video site. It was important that these were viewed only by the school community so that I didn’t breach copyright laws. Then I had to create permalinks so that I could share them. It wasn’t easy: Not easy at all. I found some good quality stories online but my biggest problem was that several formats e.g. Google and You Tube simply didn’t work in China. This was hugely frustrating.

In any other online or distance learning programmes that I have been involved with there was an extensive planning process. Time to produce and refine materials and assessments etc. Not so this time. It was a case of “Please do Home Based Learning next week!’. What has been produced by all involved is frankly AMAZING at such short notice. Teachers have had an enormous task and they have risen to the challenge with good grace and fortitude. It was a tremendous challenge especially for the familes who were suddenly thrown into learning at home, some children in hotel rooms, with little or no resources at hand.

People asked me ‘What did you do, with no library?’ Well, I thought that initially but in actual fact there has been plenty to do remotely. I supported teachers by finding resources in our 24 online databases for their units of study. Things that they might not have known we had access to. Some teachers have had to redesign material using what we had available so I have worked with them on that. I grappled with login and access issues from parents and children. I bought additional eBooks and audio books for our online platform to ensure that children could still access books and I did an analysis of usage of our eResources. Every week I produced or found 7 different online stories. More recently I discovered power point movies and created story times using pictures of pages and a small video of me reading. I have learned SO MUCH about media technology. All things which I was vaguely aware of but was not in anyway a competent practitioner. One thing that I can say is that producing a short video clip takes an enormous amount of time. Way more than I ever appreciated. I saw one estimate that a 10 minute clip can take up to 6 hours to produce. That puts all this work into context.

School tech support have been helpful but they were often in different time zones so I have been forced to become a lot more self reliant. I have taught myself so much that my head aches thinking about it but that just added another layer of stress to the working day. I do feel a certain sense of achievement at the end of mastering a new skill on my own though. There have been times, I admit when things technical did not go my way. I remember one day trying to record a screen cast to make a tutorial of how to log in to one of our databases when it went wrong so many times that I just wanted to throw all my devices at the wall and scream at them. That was a really low point. One problem was that ALL of the work had been carried out using screens and most times this has been done from hotel beds, chairs in the lobby or on the balcony and my posture has not been great. This was online learning on the road. It was rough and ready. The important thing I learned was to take regular breaks.

There have been times when families have really struggled to access resources, teachers become frazzled with adapting to the new way of teaching and the road ahead of Home Based Learning stretched out ever longer as return to school dates have been extended again and again. We are all out of our comfort zones; all grappling with time differences as our students and staff are scattered across the globe. We had no warning, unlike the rest of the world. We just had to get on and do it. So, whilst I see people on facebook and Twitter now bemoaning their social distancing and lock downs, I think that in some ways they are lucky. They could see it coming and prepare. We were simply caught on the hoof and doing the very best that we could with limited or no resources. It is wonderful now to see so many publishers, museums and authors opening up their resources and creating access but in the beginning for me, that wasn’t there. We were the first to try and cope.

Having said all that, technology really is wonderful. The fact that we have been able to manage at all during this time is down to the wonders of modern communications. I could talk to my team on WeChat, send messages and engage in conference calls from anywhere in the world. Home-Based learning can be flexible which means that you can nip out for a coffee whenever you want but that very flexibility can become a curse when lessons are happening at a time which is your early morning or late evening and you need to be available to respond. For the conscientious it can become a 24/7 job. I remember joining one Zoom call at 11pm and it lasted until 01.15 which meant that I was a very bleary eyed participant. The lack of structure in one’s day can be a blessing but it also creates a situation when you can easily burn out. It’s actually quite hard to stop.

And so Kevin and I roamed the countries around the Indian Ocean, never certain what was going to happen next. Always keeping a close eye on the news channels, news from friends and colleagues in China and trying to sift rumours from facts. We moved on as visas expired or hotels became too expensive. In reality we were fortunate, we had sufficient funds to be ‘hotel hobos’. We sourced cheaper eating locations as time wore on, hand washed our weeks’ supply of clothing regularly but we realised that we were privileged to be able to enjoy a late afternoon dip in the pool or walk by the sea in beautiful locations. It was all doable (just) even if the wifi wasn’t always as stable as I needed.

We worked and watched as the virus moved steadily across the continents. We were living the reailty of what disruption to lives this disease could bring and we knew friends who were suffering long weeks of isolation in cramped spaces in Shanghai but I got the distinct feeling that it was all just a news bulletin from a remote place to many back in the UK. People in the West didn’t think that it would affect them in any way. It was all an ‘Asian problem’.

We were lucky, we ran ahead of the virus and knew that we had passed unscathed through our incubation period so we were pretty confident that we were not infected. We kept ourselves to ourselves and tried not to mingle too much, although often the hotels and streets were empty as the tourist trade was slow anyway. But after 6 weeks of this lifestyle we began to tire of living out of a suitcase and we reached a point when we had to decide what to do next. We didn’t fancy returning home to Shanghai, to what was then still a hot spot of the virus. We tried Australia as that would have been in the same time zone for Home Based Learning and so ideal, but they didn’t reply to our visa application (we learned later that they stopped letting any visitors in). So there was only one thing for it, it was back to Blightly, via Oman for some last rays of sunshine.

I was a bit worried as we had a suitcase full of flip flops and summer stuff none of which was in the slightest way suitable for the storm-ridden UK. We purchased a few emergency items in Oman for wearing on the plane as we knew that we had to take the train from Manchester to Lancaster so it was going to be cold! Once at home we hit the charity shops and managed wearing just a few recycled items for the time that we were back. It wasn’t something we had anticapated when we packed for our Chinese New Year break. If I had known that we were going to be away for months I would have packed more batteries, my fitbit charger and some socks! On the whole though, considering what was happening we managed very well and were able to stock up on toiletries and other items as needed.

We also hadn’t packed our driving licences and one learning point from all this has been that we will have photographs of ALL our important documents on our phones just in case, because you never know what is going to happen around the next corner!!

Being back in the UK was great and it was wonderful to see family and friends but the time differences for me got more exaggerated. At this stage some 75% of our school families were back in Shanghai but only 25% of the staff. No one else was in the UK which meant that I always had to fit around everyone else.

During this time the number of cases in Europe and the US steadily increased whilst life appeared to be returning to normal in Shanghai. On the same day I heard that Disney was re-opening and Boris Johnson declared that he wanted to create ‘Herd Immunity” in Britain. This was a major factor in my decision to return to China. I felt fit and well but couldn’t take the risk of becoming infected and not allowed back when school reopened. Concordia was just waiting for the government to give it a date and it could be any time. In the meantime Oliver and Steph got engaged and I really wanted to be home for their engagement party. COVID-19 had other ideas though and it was not to be. In the short space of a week the situation escalated so rapidly that the party was cancelled, Oliver, Steph and Inigo were self isolating and my flight back via Bangkok was suddenly impossible when the Thai authorities required a health declaration signed by a doctor saying that you had been tested as negative in the last 48 hours before you could even transit through the country. This was impossible to obtain in the UK as they didn’t even have enough test kits for the suspected cases never mind travellers.

Kevin sat at the keyboard and steamed through airline websites as one flight after another was cancelled or prices became astronomical; all while constantly checking embassy websites to find which airports were still accepting UK passengers. His diligence paid off though and he found a flight for the next day through Japan Airlines transiting in Helsinki and Osaka (interestingly none of the aircraft we flew on were Japan Airlines aircraft). The cost was more than we would normally consider but it would be worth it to be able to return. The last leg however, Osaka to Shanghai, was unconfirmed so there was a huge risk that I could arrive in Japan and find no onward flight available; so Kevin, who was originally going to stay in the UK to keep mother company, decided to come with me. I was hugely relieved as this was going to be a stressful experience at the best of times. School had already told us that China was putting all returners through a 14 day self-isolation. On the day we booked our tickets the UK was upgraded to a Category 1 country and this meant that we were facing quarantine instead.

It was a mad dash that Friday to buy the airline tickets, pack and do some last minute jobs for mother, return our borrowed car and jump on a train to Euston with three suitcases and multiple small bags. The journey across London was surreal as the evening rush hour platforms at King’s Cross looked the emptiest I had ever seen them.

The next day we were up at 6am to get to Heathrow which wasn’t as quiet as I had been expecting after the deserted Underground system! We got boarding passes for 2 /3 legs. First one to Helsinki went smoothly (3hours) then a 2.5 hour wait. It was so weird to see snow on the ground outside when we had set off at the beginning of all this in tropical climes.

The 2nd leg was 8 hours and to my surprise there were several Asian people on board in full on home-made protection. It was hot on the aircraft so they must have been roasting in all that plastic!!! This guy sat in front of me on the plane in his bin liner.

Once we landed in Osaka, we realised that the majority of flights departing that day had been cancelled. It was quite a scary moment as we scanned the departure boards for our flight and the relief when we saw that it was still on schedule was immense.

We had completed Japanese Health declaration forms on the plane and then queued for an hour to have them scrutinized (twice). Then we walked through thermal cameras one at a time as though they were the security gates. It was so ironic that I had been worried about having a hot flush at the wrong time during this process but it was Kevin who was singled out for an extra forehead temperature check. He had his sweatshirt on & a mask which is why. How those people wrapped in plastic managed I don’t know…

Then we were checked against a passenger list and marched together to the departure gate. Several of us needed boarding passes which they provided for us at the gate. Most other passengers seem to be Chinese students, perhaps thinking that China was safer now than Europe or perhaps escaping the growing racial abuse that seems to be fermenting as the stark realities of this epidemic sunk in at home. The airport was eerily quiet and reminded me of a scene from the Langoliers, long empty corridors, closed retail outlets and lonely departure lounges.

Health screening was extremely strict, we had our temperatures taken in the departure lounge then again once we were in the air by cabin crew. Next was a complex & thorough Chinese health declaration form to complete. Both of us had stuffy noses on the previous flight but had to declare it (or risk 3 years in prison.)

We landed at 15:45 and settled in for a wait. Customs officials boarded the plane in full hazmat suits and we waited to be called. At 16:00 the 1st group was called to disembark. After an hour (approx) we were allowed to leave. We queued to have forms photocopied & walk again through the thermal scanner. Because we ticked stuffy nose we were hived off for thermometer under arm & questions about the symptoms. Fortunately, we managed to convince them that it was due to cabin air pressure. They believed us. Phew.

More queuing and scanning and immigration. The airport was awash with staff all fully clad and protected. Clearly the Chinese were throwing massive resources at this operation. Our passport & visa and boarding pass were photocopied several times. The normal routes through fingerprints were cordoned off and new routes marked with staff to direct and assist at every point.

Finally in the police section we found a sign for our area of Shanghai; Pudong New Area (not Jinqiao that we had been looking for!). We had to download a Shanghai health app on our phones that showed a personal QR code; ours were coloured orange. By now it was 7pm and we were taken about 30 mins away with approx a dozen others. Half an hour later we arrived at a hotel and unloaded. We queued up under brightly coloured poly tunnels and processed through several registration stations. We gave our passports, boarding passes, flight number and seat numbers yet again. The staff were friendly and helpful though and could see that we were all tired. We were asked to sign documents which basically said that we agreed to comply with medical procedures and faced up to 3 years in prison if we failed to comply. It was hard for me to hear everything through the masks and face shields. I was so glad that Kevin was there and I wasn’t struggling to do this alone.

Then we were swabbed at the back of our throats in an uncomfortable but mercifully brief process.

By 8pm we were escorted into the hotel and checked into our rooms. We were told that we would be separated until the results came back. Our rooms were ok but in my case it obviously had not been cleaned for several occupants. The carpet was filthy and there were hairs in the sink. We had clean sheets though but had to make our own beds.

In the bathroom was a shower but only a small hand towel. We had been traveling for 29 hours and desperate for a hot shower. It was bliss and possibly one of the best showers I have ever had although patting down with something not much bigger than a flannel wasn’t great – but I was too tired to care.

We had been told that previous arrivals had not been given water to drink and instead told to boil water in the kettle but we were lucky and found a small bottle in our food package in the room. I also had some sweet buns filled with red bean paste; Kevin had a pot noodle.

On the plus side it was an extremely comfortable bed and I was glad to be able to lie down after 29 hours of power naps in airplane seats.

The next morning we were up and ready to be called at any time but nothing happened. Breakfast arrived. A boiled egg, two steamed buns filled with some strange stuff and another bottle of water. I would have killed to have had a cup of tea or coffee.

I was able to talk to Kevin, contact school and read the news on my phone. I wasn’t comfortable being on my own primarily as I was dreading not being able to hear a knock at the door or a phone call if I was sleeping or without my hearing aids.  Lunch arrived but I guess I was too nervous to eat much. I dozed fitfully and read a little. From my window I could see down to the courtyard where all the testing happens, It was a little disconcerting to see that there were locked gates and guards at the entrance. I know that this was a medical emergency and I was there voluntarily but it did feel a little like being a prisoner.

It was 1.30 in the afternoon before the call came through that our text restults were negative. It was such a relief as you never know when or where you might pick this virus up. We had wiped all the surfaces on the airplane seats but you just never know… so this was good news. I checked our QR code and it had turned green! They said to wait for the bus. So I packed ready to go at a moment’s notice but it was another 5 hours before they called us.

We were herded downstairs and told to wait under the poly tunnels. There must have been about 50 of us. No social distancing this time. I guess we had all tested negative so felt ok. We waited as small groups were called forwards and put onto coaches and mini buses. It was a slow process. It was dark. It got cold. It must have been 8pm before we were called forwards in a group largely made up of Germans. We boarded a regular bus with two hazmats to help lift the cases. Every window was open and we were instructed not to close them. It was perishing cold as we drove down the highway with the March night air screaming through. Apparently the Chinese think that good ventilation is important. I was frozen.

The stops to decant people took FOREVER as the hazmats helped them to sign forms, photocopy passports and take temperatures yet again at each drop off point. And would you believe it we were the last ones off. It was gone 9pm before we reached Phoenix Mansions. The whole process took 29 hours from the time the plane touched down to arriving at our apartment, I have never been so glad to fall into bed.

Our apartment manager, Shero was amazing and had bought us some starter groceries so we could have a cup of tea and some toast. Bliss.

And so our quarantine began.

The next afternoon we were visited by the Doctor + 2 assistants + policeman at 2pm and asked to sign more documents saying that we understood the terms of our quarantine. We were not allowed to set foot over the threshold. We had to put all rubbish outside the door before 9am and it would be collected. We were given disinfectant and hand sanitizer and a thermometer, masks and a special yellow hazardous waste binbag (in case we developed the virus we should put all rubbish out in that.) Shopping is done online and the guards bring the delivery to our door, knock and leg it quickly.

Every day we are required to take our temperature at 9am and 2pm and submit the readings to the Doctor via WeChat on our phones. It provides a structure to our days. On the whole though we are enjoying the peace and quiet. We have been sleeping an average of 12 hours each day and I don’t think that we realised how exhausting the travelling and worrying was never mind the stressful airport testing. We are reading and cooking and stitching, watching Netflix and resting, catching up with laundry and enjoying having our own things in our own space again. Our friends and colleagues here have been in touch to celebrate (virtually) and we are hoping that school will open again sometime in April. It is Spring Break this week and I am truly thankful not to be sitting at a screen (except to write this) I needed a break.

We can’t quite believe that once again we have stayed ahead of the virus. This isn’t the end of the journey I’m sure, but so far so good.

Moving on to Muscat

We are marking time here in this beautiful city while we wait for all the U.K. storms to die down before we head home to wait out the rest of this virus.

I am very aware of all the people in China who are suffering and all our friends back in Shanghai who have been confined in small apartments, especially the families at our school. Cabin fever is bad enough without having small people jumping all over you. We were so very lucky to be out before all the lockdowns started and even luckier to be able to move around.

Online learning continues and we are fortunate that the internet allows us to be able to work flexibly and over long distances. I don’t know how we would manage without that. This is my office this week. The views aren’t so good but I get a desk! Who would know I’d be excited to have a desk. But more on the cause of our travels in another blog.

For now we are in Oman, somewhere that wasn’t on my bucket list but I’m really glad that circumstances have brought us here. We have had the opportunity to explore Muscat this weekend.

Our first stop was the Grand Qaboos Mosque which was built only recently in 2001 and it was a gift to the nation from Sultan Qaboos who died last month at the age of 80.

This space was the women’s prayer hall. To our great surprise we discovered that the carpet was from Scotland! We were not expecting that.

The whole mosque is made from Italian white and grey marble

And the effect in this courtyard was one of peace and tranquillity.

The outer areas are made of lilac marble which I’d never seen before but which was also very calming

The dress code for visitors was quite strict

I can confirm that it was quite hot wearing all that!

Inside the main hall can fit 8000 worshippers and has the worlds largest chandelier. The 600k crystals are Swarovski from Germany and it was stunning. This picture doesn’t really do it justice.

Being an iconoclastic religion images are banned so all Islamic Art is all made of beautiful geometric designs. I have seen plenty but the colour schemes here were quite inspirational.

Even the stained glass was pretty awesome.

But my favorite was the carpet. Woven as a single piece using natural vegetable dyes it took 600 professional weavers 4 years to make.

They even had a library…

Then onto the Souk for some retail therapy. It was great if you needed a little black number!

Finally a visit to the Opera House. Recently completed in 2011 it had the world’s largest pipe organ.

What impressed me were the screens on the back of all the seats which showed translations of the opera into three languages. Sultan Qaboos was educated in England where he learned to play the organ. He would give recitals here.

The drive through the surrounding area of Muscat was interesting. Unlike Dubai there are no skyscrapers. It’s forbidden to build above a certain height. This gives the city much more charm and character. Most structures are white or sandstone. It was like the fabled city of Fratzia (for those who know their children’s picture books)

And best of all… there are very few biting insects! Yay!